More User Friendly and Used by More Agencies. Where should officers go to obtain information about unsolved violent crime cases? Where do they direct their inquiries? Who do they ask? Officers in small departments might ask their colleagues during morning roll call. Those in mid-sized agencies might question investigators working other shifts. Personnel in large departments might ask officers in the next jurisdiction by sending a teletype or similar communication.
Yet, the communication might not reach the employees who have the necessary information. Generally, personnel who need information about violent crime cases do not connect with the investigators who have that knowledge. Information technology (IT) has enhanced communication for law enforcement, allowing departments to close violent crime cases with the arrest of an offender.
Origin of ViCAP
The Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP)1 originated from an idea by local law enforcement and the late Pierce Brooks.2 In 1956, Mr. Brooks investigated the murders of two Los Angeles women who had replied to an advertisement for photographic models. Their bodies, tied with rope in such a fashion as to suggest that the killer might practice bondage, subsequently were found in the desert.
Mr. Brooks, convinced that these were not the killer’s first murders and that the offender would kill again, devised an early form of ViCAP. For 18 months, he used his off-duty time to visit the Los Angeles central library and read out-of-town newspapers to look for information on murders that exhibited characteristics similar to those he was investigating. He found such an article in a newspaper and, using pieces from that case coupled with evidence from his own cases, arrested an individual who subsequently was tried, convicted, and executed for the murders.
Mr. Brooks refined his idea and concluded that a computer could capture relevant information about murders. If open and closed cases were stored in the computer, investigators easily could query the database for similar ones when they first confront new, “mystery” cases. They could use clues from other cases that exhibit similar characteristics to solve more cases. Moreover, when officers identify offenders, a search of the computer using their modus operandi (MO) would reveal other open cases for which they might be responsible.3 In 1983, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the National Institute of Justice gave a planning grant, the “National Missing/Abducted Children and Serial Murder Tracking and Prevention Program,” to Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. After three workshops, with the last held in November 1983, the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) emerged. The U.S. Department of Justice provided the initial funding for the NCAVC and stipulated that it would be “...under the direction and control of the FBI training center at Quantico, Virginia.”4 ViCAP became a part of the NCAVC with its goal to “...collect, collate, and analyze all aspects of the investigation of similar-pattern, multiple murders, on a nationwide basis, regardless of the location or number of police agencies involved.”5 Mr. Brooks envisioned ViCAP as a “nationwide clearing-house...to provide all law enforcement agencies reporting similar-pattern violent crimes with the information necessary to initiate a coordinated multiagency investigation.”6 ViCAP attempts to identify similar characteristics that may exist in a series of unsolved murders and provide all police agencies reporting similar patterns with information necessary to initiate a coordinated multiagency investigation.7
Redesign of ViCAP
Since ViCAP’s beginning at the FBI Academy in July 1985, its goal of identifying cases exhibiting similar characteristics and providing that information to law enforcement agencies for a coordinated, case-closing investigation has remained constant. But, a tremendous change has occurred in the way ViCAP now provides services to state and local law enforcement. In 1996, a business analysis revealed several details about ViCAP.8
*Only 3 to 7 percent of the total cases were reported each year. Of the 21,000 homicides (average) reported per year in the 1990s,9 only about 1,500 to 1,800 were submitted to the nationwide database.
*An urban void existed. While most murders occurred in large cities, the cities were not contributing their homicides to the nationwide database.
*ViCAP users reported that the 189-question ViCAP form was cumbersome and difficult.
*Users perceived that ViCAP case submissions entered a bureaucratic “black hole” never to emerge or be seen again.
*Chronic understaffing caused a failure to address incoming case work on a timely basis.
The beginning of the ViCAP change originated with the 1994 crime bill. Legislation in this bill directed the attorney general to “...develop and implement, on a pilot basis with no more than 10 participating cities, an intelligent information system that gathers, integrates, organizes, and analyzes information in active support of investigations by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies of violent serial crimes.”10
From the business analysis, ViCAP learned that the program had to be placed in the hands of state and local law enforcement. This concept of program delivery required two conditions of ViCAP software: 1) migration of the application from a mainframe computing environment to a platform more affordable by state and local law enforcement and 2) a choice of software that eliminated the need for a computer programmer to extract information from a database. To accomplish these objectives, ViCAP had to create a powerful, object-oriented, user-friendly, software seamlessly integrating data, mapping, reporting, and image-capturing tools. This high-end software would have to operate on a modestly priced desktop computer. Crime bill monies provided the initial funding to create completely new software for ViCAP and to move it as an application from a mainframe to a client-server environment.
ViCAP decided that users of the new ViCAP software would receive the service free of charge. Moreover, ViCAP loaned high-end computers loaded with the new software to more than 50 law enforcement entities.
These computers had a modem that enabled users to exchange information with each other and forward case information to state hubs where it was downloaded to the national database. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) formalized the conveyance of new ViCAP software, the loan of a desktop computer to participating agencies, and these agencies’ relationship with ViCAP.
Additionally, the 189-question ViCAP form was completely redesigned, streamlined to only 95 questions, and became more appealing to the eye. The paper form both looked and became more user-friendly.
In 1998, Congress provided additional funding for ViCAP crime analysts. Today, 19 well-trained and experienced crime analysts serve with ViCAP, and they address incoming work and requests on a more timely basis. They handle high-profile or immediate case requests rapidly, frequently within the same hour or day. In a symbolic, but important, perceptual break with the old ways of doing business, ViCAP reflected its new software and energy with a new name—the New ViCAP.
Case Example : Victim by the Lake
In 1996, a suspect in a drug case in a northeastern state made an offer to the authorities—in exchange for leniency in his prosecution or at the time of his sentencing, he would give information linking his brother to a murder. He advised that a white male in a southeastern state died from repeated strikes with a blunt object. The investigators questioned the suspect about where the crime occurred, and the suspect advised that he did not know the exact location, but that he thought it happened near a body of water. Further, the suspect advised that his brother ran over the victim with an automobile.
Investigators from the northeastern state contacted ViCAP and related the details of the case as told to them by the suspect. A crime analyst searched the ViCAP database and found a case from 1986 in a southeastern state that matched the details offered by the suspect in the drug case. The victim’s cause of death was blunt force trauma, and he was run over by an automobile. Further, the murder occurred near a small lake. Authorities in the northeast with the information contacted investigators in the southeast with the open homicide case. The southeastern case successfully was closed with the identification and arrest of the offender.11
Case Example : Texas Railroads
In 1999, a series of homicides occurred in Texas. Early in the series, the cases were presented as murders in the victims’ homes. Female victims were sexually assaulted, blunt force trauma was the cause of death,12 and items of value were stolen from the homes.13 The murder scenes were close to railroad tracks, sometimes only a few feet away.
In May 1999, personnel from the command post in Texas called ViCAP with information about three of the murders. One of the ViCAP crime analysts remembered a case from Kentucky where railroad tracks were prominently mentioned. The analyst searched the database and quickly found the case in Kentucky where a male was killed along a pair of railroad tracks. The cause of death was blunt force trauma.14 His female companion was sexually assaulted and left for dead. ViCAP relayed information concerning the Kentucky rape/homicide to the command post in Texas. Subsequent DNA examinations linked the Texas cases with the Kentucky case.
An itinerant freight train rider was identified as the suspect in the series of cases.15 He was apprehended by authorities on July 13, 1999, when he surrendered at the border in El Paso, Texas. Charged with nine murders, two in Illinois, one in Kentucky, and six in Texas,16 the subject was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.
In July 2000, he confessed to the 1997 murders of two teenagers on a railroad track near Oxford, Florida.17 The male victim’s body was found on March 23, 1997; the female victim’s body was not found until July 2000, when authorities, following the killer’s directions, found her skeletal remains wrapped in a blanket and jacket.18 While confessing to the two murders in Florida, the subject said that he once killed a woman in a southeastern state, somewhere along railroad tracks. She was an old woman, hanging her wash on the line, and he killed her inside her house. He did not provide more details.
A check of the ViCAP database revealed a 1998 case from a southeastern state where an elderly woman was hanging laundry in her backyard just a few feet from a pair of railroad tracks that ran by her property. The command post in Texas and the investigator in the southeastern state were notified of the case match. When interviewed by the investigator, the subject confessed in detail and drew a diagram of the inside of the victim’s house. In this case, no fingerprint or DNA evidence matched the defendant to the murder.
The New ViCAP
Some agencies run the New ViCAP system in their own departments, others prefer to run the software on a stand-alone desktop, and several put the software on their internal networks. Agency networks support as few as three users, through the entire investigative staff, and up to five different boroughs and the precincts therein. New ViCAP software operating in participating agencies allows direct access to all of the information that they enter and the ability to perform their own crime analysis.
Cold case squads can store their cases without resorting to wall-filling filing cabinets. With just a piece of information, a nickname, an address, or the name of a bar or other business, investigators can retrieve decade-old cases for additional investigation. Conversely, cold case squads looking for cases exhibiting an MO used by a suspect, or a series of cases matching a particular MO, can make those searches as well.
Research has shown that administrators like the reports package in New ViCAP. Standard reports include—
*cases by day of the week, month, or district;
*case status (open or closed);
*offender age or ethnicity;
*victim age or ethnicity;
*victim-offender relationship; and
*all weapons used or firearms used by caliber or type.
Perhaps most useful to administrators and investigators is the one-page New ViCAP summary report, which collects the main facts from a violent crime and prints them to the screen or, typically, two sheets of paper. The summary report proves an excellent briefing tool for administrators, managers, or elected officials.
Some investigators and prosecutors like to have all of the information about a case in one place, but the concept of electronic storage of case information proves unsettling to some people. To overcome this problem, New ViCAP provided a hard copy. This multi-page report prints on screen or on paper and includes all of the information entered into the database. The printed document can be placed in the case folder or jacket and preserved indefinitely.
New ViCAP understands that unique cases require distinctive database queries. To provide for discrete, particular questions of the database, the program has a powerful ad hoc query tool, whereby any combination of New ViCAP variables and attributes can be strung together to produce a set of possibly related cases. Refinement of the ad hoc query produces more, or fewer, cases delivered to the crime analyst through the possibilities set. When the listing of cases is returned, the crime analyst can contrast and compare them in a matrix of variables specified by the analyst. Particularly valuable case matrixes can be titled and printed for more formal presentations, such as multiagency case meetings. The ad hoc query and resulting matrix analysis prove a very powerful combination of tools for any analyst examining violent crime.
Sexual Assault Data Collection
Many New ViCAP users have reported that the homicide-oriented version was a helpful crime analysis tool. But, what the users really needed was a crime analysis tool for sexual assaults. ViCAP currently is working on that product by determining data elements for the paper form and the electronic version and designing the paper form for sexual assault data collection to mirror the existing homicide-oriented form. ViCAP is developing the electronic portion of the system in a Web-enabled fashion. This will permit users to exchange information more easily and potentially will provide limited access to the nationwide database.
A recent development in New ViCAP is the ability to store one or more images and associate them with a particular case. The images can be photographs scanned into the system or maps or other graphics imported into the system. This tool has important implications for training new investigators, refreshing case-specific recollections of experienced investigators, or exchanging precise information to identify unknown victims.
An envisioned tool, not yet a part of the software, is a mapping capability. New ViCAP already captures graphic information system (GIS) data. This information could be used for traditional pin maps. Alternatively, investigators could use GIS data to store and search offender time lines like those prepared for suspected or known serial killers. Once offender time lines are stored, GIS data for each newly entered case could be automatically compared with the time lines. For example, an automated hit system could report to the analyst that plus or minus 3 days, a killer was in the town where the murder occurred.19
A Communication Tool
Police agencies across the country recognize New ViCAP as a valuable violent crime communication tool. The first pair of cities to use New ViCAP were Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas. Now, police and sheriff departments in the largest metropolitan areas are using New ViCAP, including Baltimore, Maryland; Chi-cago, Illinois; Los Angeles, Califor-nia; Miami, Florida; New York, New York; and Washington, D.C. Further, MOUs and the New ViCAP system are in place with 40 states. More than 400 state and local law enforcement entities use the New ViCAP software.
The architecture of the New ViCAP network is as varied as the needs of its users. For some states, such as Colorado, a “hub and spoke” design works well. MOUs are created between the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and cities and counties in the state. Cases can be entered at the local level and uploaded to the state. In addition to its networking arrangements, CBI selected New ViCAP as the statewide tool for sex offender registry.
Other states have implemented a regional model. For example, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s and Los Angeles Police Departments provide an excellent example of regional concept application. The sheriff’s department serves as the collection point and analysis hub for cases in the county. MOUs are in place between the sheriff’s department and 45 of the 46 police agencies in the county, thus providing a web of case-sharing information for participating law enforcement entities, including the two largest, the police and sheriff’s departments.
Case Example : Bag of Bones
In 2001, a ViCAP crime analyst reviewed a state police publication that mentioned a bag of human bones found by hunters in a seaboard forest of an eastern state. The victim was a white male, about 40 to 60 years old, and between 5' 7" and 5' 9" in height. His cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head. Recovered with the remains was a 14-carat gold ring with engraved letters. Authorities had no leads for identification of the remains.
A ViCAP crime analyst searched the database using the physical description of the victim and then made an additional search, thinking that the letters engraved in the ring might be the initials of a name. A possible match was made with a July 1998 case where three people were reported missing from a midwestern state. The report was made by a fourth member of the family, a son, who waited a week before reporting his mother, father, and sibling as missing persons. Personnel had exhausted all investigative leads.
Authorities in the eastern and midwestern states contacted each other. In January 2001, ViCAP learned that forensic odontology had identified the bones in the bag as those of the father missing from the midwestern state. The letters in the recovered ring represented the maiden name of the missing mother and the name of the missing father.
ViCAP learned later that a suspect was identified and charged with the murder—the oldest son who made the report in the midwest. The remains of his mother and his sibling have not been located.
New ViCAP created a standard of information for exchange between law enforcement agencies. Naturally, a law enforcement entity would express concern for violent crime data sent to a national database with information no longer under an agency’s direct control. ViCAP recognizes its responsibility to provide security for violent crime case data and has provided that security for more than 16 years. New ViCAP continues to recognize the sensitive nature of violent crime data and provides appropriate security.
The FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program Unit has helped local and state law enforcement agencies solve violent crimes for almost 20 years. As technology has improved, ViCAP has ensured that its objectives change to support such advancements. New ViCAP represents an instructional and technological violent crime analysis tool suitable for use in a law enforcement agency of any size. It provides a standard method for the communication of violent crime information between and among agencies.
New ViCAP software is free to agencies that formalize their relationship with a state hub or ViCAP. The software is case-management and case-matching capable with an easy-to-use data retrieval scheme and a package of reports that serves the needs of administrators and commanders. Initially designed for homicide-oriented violent crime, New ViCAP soon will provide an information technology system to capture and analyze sex offenses as well. Forty years after Mr. Brooks’ idea of putting all homicides into a computer, law enforcement is on the cusp of making his thinking a practical reality.
1 ViCAP has been distinguished by several acronyms since its inception. To ensure consistency in this article, the author used the current acronym for the program.
2 Mr. Brooks was a former commander of the Los Angeles, California, Police Department’s Robbery-Homicide Division. See, Bob Keefer, “Distinguished Homicide Detective Dies at 75,” The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, March 1, 1998, p. 1, in which he wrote that Mr. Brooks investigated the murder of a Los Angeles officer in an onion field outside of Bakersfield, California. Joseph Wambaugh wrote the book The Onion Field based on this crime. Subsequently, Mr. Brooks served as a technical consultant to Jack Webb and the television show “Dragnet,” as well as “Dragnet 1969,” the made-for-television production of the case outlined here.
3 Author interviews with Pierce R. Brooks, Quantico, Virginia, 1985 and Vida, Oregon, April 1992.
4 Steven A. Egger, Serial Murder—An Elusive Phenomenon (New York, NY: Prager Publishers, 1990), 192-193.
6 Pierce Brooks, “The Investigative Consultant Team: A New Approach for Law Enforcement Cooperation,” (Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum, 1981), unpublished report, in Steven A. Egger, Serial Murder—An Elusive Phenomenon (New York, NY: Prager Publishers, 1990), 193.
7 Supra note 4, 193.
8 Arthur Meister, ViCAP lectures at Quantico, Virginia, 1999-2000.
9 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991-2000), 8, 13, 14, or 15. In 1991, a high of 24,526 homicides were reported, contrasted with a low of 15,533 reported in 1999.
10 U.S. Congress, Senate, Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1993, H.R. 3355 Amendment, 103rd Cong., 1st sess., 1993, 267-268.
11 Arthur Meister, ViCAP lectures at Quantico, VA, 1999-2000.
12 David McLemore, “Aliases, Trainhopping Obscure Suspect’s Trail,” Dallas Morning News, June 17, 1999, sec. A., p. 16.
13 Pauline Arrillaga, “Town Copes After Slayings by Suspected Rail Rider,” Dallas Morning News, June 11, 1999, sec. A., p. 29.
14 Supra note 12, sec. A., p. 17.
15 Michael Pearson, “Railroad Killer,” Associated Press, June 22, 1999.
16 Mark Babineck, “Railroad Killer,” Associated Press, 2000.
17 “Railroad Killer,” Associated Press, July 2000.
19 This represents an arbitrary number; analysts could select any number of days.
© FBI : Law Enforcement Bulletin
ERIC W. WITZIG, M.S.